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Before the Ruins


Before the Ruins

From debut author Victoria Gosling comes BEFORE THE RUINS, a dark, multilayered gothic mystery set in and around a ruinous manor, filled with forgotten crimes and the dreams of four young people.

The year is 1996, and teens Andy, Peter and Em are best friends, drinking cheap beer, smoking hash and playing childhood games in a deserted manor house with a sordid history. Accompanying them and helping them bridge the gap to the adult world is Marcus, Andy’s boyfriend, who not only drives Andy and her friends around in his van, but helps Andy get a job with his uncle Darren. Though they have plenty to do around town, in school and preparing for adulthood, Andy focuses the group’s interest on a mystery.

Years earlier, an expensive diamond necklace was stolen from the manor, and though a suspect was found (dead, inconveniently), the necklace has never been located, and rumor has it that it is still hidden in the manor or on its grounds. The game is childish, certainly, but for Andy it is all-important. Her mother is unwell, neglectful and often mean, and she keeps warning Andy that the apocalypse is near. Andy doesn’t believe her mother, not exactly. The end of her world as she knows it is approaching rapidly: Peter will be going to Oxford soon, Em will be off to study and make art, and she doesn’t feel the all-encompassing love for Marcus that could allow her to feel secure in their future together.

"Gosling handles the gothic, the tragic and the unexplainable well, often tackling multiple storylines at once and weaving them together for a grand reveal."

And then a boy turns up at the manor. David is charming, handsome (but not unbearably so) and mysterious. He tells Andy and her group that he is doing a runner, having accidentally stolen from a teacher on a school trip, and is hiding out in the manor, which belongs to his friend’s family. There are holes in his story, but he adds a sense of mystery and mayhem to the already noteworthy summer. Before long, Andy realizes that she is in love with him. But so is Peter. As the five young men and women hunt for the missing necklace and make plans for their futures, lines are crossed, secrets traded and trusts betrayed. Before they realize it, David goes missing and the group moves on, forever changed by that summer.

When we meet Andy again, she is an adult, and though she still sees Peter from time to time, the group they once loved has fallen apart. Still, it is a shock to Andy when she gets a call from Peter’s mother and learns that he has been missing for at least four weeks. As Andy tries to find him, she revisits that disastrous summer and everything that came after it, asking herself how well she ever really knew Peter --- or any of them, for that matter, including herself.

Jumping between the past, present and everywhere in between, Andy starts looking for Peter, certain that there are clues to his disappearance that she missed along the way. But her search becomes far more introspective than she expected, as she dives into her most painful memories, group fights she ignored and love triangles she didn’t realize existed. It is almost as though Peter’s disappearance takes the backburner, with Andy’s hunt for the truth --- all truths --- taking the lead.

As a mystery, BEFORE THE RUINS is fairly predictable, though no less engrossing for it. Gosling handles the gothic, the tragic and the unexplainable well, often tackling multiple storylines at once and weaving them together for a grand reveal. But the book is not only --- or even mostly --- a mystery. It is much more an examination of adulthood and the disappointments that come with it. Andy’s journey from rough-and-tumble teen to sought-after professional is both shocking and painfully familiar, and I have no doubt that her ennui will resonate with readers of a certain age. Combining the real mysteries at the heart of the book with the all-encompassing, unsolvable mystery of adulthood makes this novel heady and dreamy, much more than your average English mystery.

Although I enjoyed the general plot and found much to love about the characters, especially Andy, I was often distracted by the writing. Gosling’s prose is poetic in style, and though there were several lovely passages, I often found myself distanced from the heart of the book trying to figure out what she was saying. There were times when I was not sure who was speaking --- an important fact in a group of five! --- and I had to reread sections to be sure. I would read another novel by Gosling, but I’d like to see her try her hand at something less plot-based and more character-driven, for that is where she truly shines.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 15, 2021

Before the Ruins
by Victoria Gosling